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Bullseye. His eyes squinted, result of a grin big enough to reveal teeth whiter than my pointy pumps before guiding another dart into the board. He was tan, built, and confident enough. He had a sort of strategy about him, everything planned and articulate. It seemed like he could hold his liquor; he kept his composure throughout that night, and he has since then too. It meant a lot to someone like me.
His sloppy friends were misbehaving, but he was keeping them in line, trying not to get them thrown out of that claustrophobic bar. They were rowdy, and they seemed like jerks, though later I would come to learn they are not so bad. I mostly resented them in that moment because they demanded his attention, and I wanted it all for myself. Nevertheless, his gaze continued to meet mine from all the way across those thick oak booths. I blushed every time.
I waved for the bartender to deliver me another merlot and twirled my hair into a tight bun to rest on my neck. I held the glossed bundle awkwardly with one hand as I pawed through my purse with the other, finding only a few pencils to hold it all together. My glasses were perched on top of my head, holding back the straggling hair aggravating my eyes.
I was alone, which would have been weird if I wasn’t a child abuse attorney. The stress of the job made it acceptable for me to sit here and just drink. My mind wandered but my gaze focused on the man playing darts. His friends had their arms sprawled on the sides of a tearing velvet couch, scanning the room for girls worthy of their time. But he. He only ever looked at me. If you asked him now he would say it was because of those pencils lost in my thick curly locks.
He continued to run the dart board, and I couldn’t tell for sure from where I was sitting, but I think he was making a good amount of money doing so. He was taking advantage of the misplaced courage within the surrounding drunk men. Those with a girl on their hip were ready to talk trash, eager to impress their 6-hour-long fling. It was getting late and the drinks were flowing, so even if they usually had game, they were too sloppy to perform. All were sent away with an angry huff, a disappointed date, and what looked like regret. But the man with those white teeth and that dark tan, he was different from all of them. He didn’t get uglier as the night went on.
I watched him until the people around me began to fade out of the creaky side door and to the neighboring bar which was, judging by the music vibrating the shared wall, more lively. The thin, cramped New York streets always allowed for eavesdropping.
I did not move other than to order another glass of wine each time I ran out. I was probably about five in when I began feeling guilty. How hypocritical and stupid of me it was to come here and drink to try and escape the drunks that surrounded me daily. But I had yet to find an equally effective way of forgetting it all, escaping for just a few hours. Maybe it was harmless, maybe I was just as bad as the rest of them. I’ll never be able to decide.
My vision was getting a little fuzzy, and the wine was running warm through my veins; it gave me the guts to walk across the bar, balancing on the stilts that were my office pumps with great ease. I was rehearsed. As I approached the dart board, I realized that for the first time all night, the man was playing alone.
I sat on the velvet couch his friends were sunk into earlier, and didn’t say a word. We were within about 6 feet, or some other distance close enough for me to smell his aftershave. I wasn’t capable of precision. I smirked harder when I saw the plaque on his floppy leather briefcase that was sprawled across his high top table. Raphaelson & Levine, I read in my mind. The best personal injury firm in the city. Go figure.
He looked over at me and raised his left eyebrow slightly, as if to acknowledge my presence, then walked to the dart board to retrieve his throws from all the right places.
“Raph and Levine,” I paused. “Not bad.”
“Not a lawyer,” he replied.
His tongue peaked through the seal formed between his big lips. He was concentrating, like a little kid trying hard to finish his math homework to get some dessert. I smiled. He still does that face, and I still smile.
When he turned to glance at me again, I tilted my head, inviting him to tell me his story.
“Finance.” He paused. “I keep their books and shit.”
I could tell his gaze was focused on the rims of my charcoal glasses instead of the depths of my silver eyes.
“You’re the lawyer,” he continued. “I can tell by the way you sip your merlot and stare from your little perch over there. Trying to pick up little details about me to generalize into the bigger stuff.”
He wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t embarrassed. I liked who I was when it came to my career and the habits that formed as a result of it.
“Just observant,” I defended.
“So tell me what you already know,” he begged.
I hesitated but ultimately gave in.
“You can handle your liquor, but you're thin, so I take it you were a heavy drinker at some point. Now you seem like the babysitter of your little group. Good to see you’ve moved away from all that.” I took a deep breath before continuing.
“You're dressed expensive, and your shoes aren’t scuffed. You’re paid well and someone does your dry cleaning. Judging by the fact that you are here alone so late, I am going to guess it is a housekeeper, not a girlfriend. Maybe you had a girlfriend, but she recently broke up with you, or maybe the other way around; it doesn’t really matter. I just know you weren’t pawning after the girls who walked by, like your friends.”
I could have gone on, but first I wanted to see what he had to say and, mostly, if I was right. That was the thing about assumptions—they could go horribly wrong.
“Or maybe I am just a gentleman,” he said, interrupting my thoughts.
It was a good point, but implausible. He was a good looking guy, too good looking to also be a gentleman. Not to mention, I found him in a bar, and that was everything I didn’t want in a man. A bar-goer, I mean. But he seemed in control, so it was fine. Right? I hated that I couldn’t stop my mind from defending him, from wanting him to prove everything I knew wrong.
“Do I really have to be coming off a breakup to have no interest in the girls strutting by?”
“That’s just what the odds suggest, though I don’t mind being wrong.”
Now he looked at me with effort, like he really wanted to know me, beyond the big gawky frames of my glasses, the chunky pumps, and the boozy vibes. It was like nobody had ever looked at me before. I felt regretful when he interrupted the moment to continue.
“A pretty girl in here drinking alone… I am dying to know why,” he said.
And it was then that I probably could have told him about the long day I had surrounded by little kids who were suffocated by a long childhood with a father too drunk to do anything right. It was then that I probably could have broken down a million times about the irony of it all, the fact that I came here to drink to escape the drunk disasters I witness everyday.
But that was a lot to handle.
A lot to put into words because I didn’t (and still don’t) understand it all enough to try.
So I settled for ambiguity, and decided that maybe one day, sometime soon, but not too soon, he would be ready to hear my story, and I would be ready to tell it.
“Let’s just say I had a long day.”
For a while we continued throwing flirtatious banter back and forth. I learned that his name was Mason, and he loved that I had the same name as his mother, Emily. He upped the game once he realized I could handle myself in quick conversation, and it wasn’t long before I knew that we were both secretly thinking about seeing each other again.
“Play me in darts?”
I laughed at the thought of myself doing anything remotely sports related, never mind doing it well enough to impress a guy I just met.
“I don’t think so.”
“It will be fun.”
“Maybe for you and the bystanders who get to witness my clumsy demise.”
“We won’t keep score. Just a few rounds.”
And then he looked at me with his big brownish pupils and they started to melt into the rims of his sea foam eyes.
I stood up, slithered over to the dart board, and slipped off my heels. Feeling a few peanut shells crunch under my nylon wrapped toes and a slice of regret for baring my feet, I tilted my head and looked up at him.
He walked over, scooped up the darts, and handed them to me.
The game went better than expected. I couldn’t tell you if I did well or if the abundance of merlot just made me think I was doing well. Regardless, my worries had vanished and I felt at peace there. In that moment. In his presence.
I knew it was the start of something special.
The first throw, when I missed the board completely, I got to see his laugh for the first time, making it my best throw all night. As time went on, I got better and better, and he seemed to study me more and more, like he was intrigued with a problem he couldn’t quite figure out.
Soon enough another couple approached, and they challenged us to a game of two-on-two. Before I could say no, that I had to get home soon, Mason draped his arm around my shoulder and said that we would absolutely take on the challenge.
Apparently I performed well, though I didn’t (and still don’t) even know the rules to tell you what that entailed. I was all giggles: only serious when I needed to be. We were ahead by so much that it was turning into a mockery. What ended up being the last shot, I threw with my eyes closed. I thought it would be funny, and accepted that I would miss horribly. But when I opened my eyes to a grinning Mason, I turned to see a bullseye.
“Dammit, I am gonna marry you,” he said.
And I didn’t take it too seriously. We were all really drunk by then, and even though he could handle his liquor, I could sense it running through his veins now more than ever.
But I guess that is why, five years later, when Mason walked me blindfolded to that thick oak bar on the opposite side of town, I wasn’t too surprised. When my eyes were uncovered to find a dart board with a rose tacked to the bullseye, surrounded by hundreds of tall and skinny wax dripping fires, I wasn’t mad at how cheesy it was. When he got down on a knee and proposed, I wasn’t unsure of anything.